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Big Tech’s attention economy can be reformed. Here’s how.

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This week a violent mob mounted the biggest attack on the Capitol, the seat of American democracy, in more than 200 years, driven by the false belief that the presidential election had been stolen. The chief author of that claim was President Donald Trump, but the mob’s readiness to believe it was in large part a product of the attention economy that modern technology has created.

News feeds on Facebook or Twitter operate on a business model of commodifying the attention of billions of people per day, sorting tweets, posts, and groups to determine which get the most engagement (clicks, views, and shares)—what gets the strongest emotional reactions. These commodifying attention platforms have warped the collective psyche. They have led to narrower and crazier views of the world.

YouTube’s recommendation algorithms, which determine 70% of daily watch time for billions of people, “suggest” what are meant to be similar videos but actually drive viewers to more extreme, more negative, or more conspiratorial content because that’s what keeps them on their screens longer. For years, YouTube recommended “thinspiration”—anorexia-promoting videos—to teen girls who watched videos about “dieting.” And when people watched science videos of NASA’s moon landing, YouTube recommended videos about the flat-Earth conspiracy theory. It did this hundreds of millions of times. News feeds and recommendation systems like this have created a downward spiral of negativity and paranoia, slowly decoupling billions of people’s perception of reality from reality itself.

Seeing reality clearly and truthfully is fundamental to our capacity to do anything. By monetizing and commodifying attention, we’ve sold away our ability to see problems and enact collective solutions. This isn’t new. Almost any time we allow the life support systems of our planet or society to be commodified, it drives other breakdowns. When you commodify politics with AI-optimized microtargeted ads, you remove integrity from politics. When you commodify food, you lose touch with the life cycle that makes agriculture sustainable. When you commodify education into digital feeds of content, you lose the interrelatedness of human development, trust, care, and teacherly authority. When you commodify love by turning people into playing cards on Tinder, you sever the complex dance involved in forging new relationships. And when you commodify communication into chunks of posts and comment threads on Facebook, you remove context, nuance, and respect. In all these cases, extractive systems slowly erode the foundations of a healthy society and a healthy planet.

Shifting systems to protect attention

E.O. Wilson, the famed biologist, proposed that humans should run only half the Earth, and that the rest should be left alone. Imagine something similar for the attention economy. We can and should say that we want to protect human attention, even if that sacrifices a portion of the profits of Apple, Google, Facebook, and other large technology corporations.

Ad blockers on digital devices are an interesting example of what could become a structural shift in the digital world. Are ad blockers a human right? If everybody could block ads on Facebook, Google, and websites, the internet would not be able to fund itself, and the advertising economy would lose massive amounts of revenue. Does that outcome negate the right? Is your attention a right? Do you own it? Should we put a price on it? Selling human organs or enslaved people can meet a demand and generate profit, but we say these items do not belong in the marketplace. Like human beings and their organs, should human attention be something money can’t buy?

Is your attention a right? Do you own it? Should we put a price on it? Like human beings and their organs, should human attention be something money can’t buy?

The covid-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and climate change and other ecological crises have made more and more people aware of how broken our economic and social systems are. But we are not getting to the roots of these interconnected crises. We’re falling for interventions that feel like the right answer but instead are traps that surreptitiously maintain the status quo. Slightly better police practices and body cameras do not prevent police misconduct. Buying a Prius or Tesla isn’t enough to really bring down levels of carbon in the atmosphere. Replacing plastic straws with biodegradable ones is not going to save the oceans. Instagram’s move to hide the number of “likes” is not transforming teenagers’ mental-health problems, when the service is predicated on constant social comparison and systemic hijacking of the human drive for connection. We need much deeper systemic reform. We need to shift institutions to serve the public interest in ways that are commensurate with the nature and scale of the challenges we face.

At the Center for Humane Technology, one thing we did was convince Apple, Google, and Facebook to adopt—at least in part—the mission of “Time Well Spent” even if it went against their economic interests. This was a movement we launched through broad public media-awareness campaigns and advocacy, and it gained credence with technology designers, concerned parents, and students. It called for changing the digital world’s incentives from a race for “time spent” on screens and apps into a “race to the top” to help people spend time well. It has led to real change for billions of people. Apple, for example, introduced “Screen Time” features in May 2018 that now ship with all iPhones, iPads, and other devices. Besides showing all users how much time they spend on their phone, Screen Time offers a dashboard of parental controls and app time limits that show parents how much time their kids are spending online (and what they are doing). Google launched its similar Digital Wellbeing initiative around the same time. It includes further features we had suggested, such as making it easier to unplug before bed and limit notifications. Along the same lines, YouTube introduced “Take a break” notifications.

These changes show that companies are willing to make sacrifices, even in the realm of billions of dollars. Nonetheless, we have not yet changed the core logic of these corporations. For a company to do something against its economic interest is one thing; doing something against the DNA of its purpose and goals is a different thing altogether.

Working toward collective action

We need deep, systemic reform that will shift technology corporations to serving the public interest first and foremost. We have to think bigger about how much systemic change might be possible, and how to harness the collective will of the people.

Recently at the Center for Humane Technology, we interviewed Christiana Figueres, the former executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (2010–2016), for our podcast Your Undivided Attention. She was responsible for the “collaborative diplomacy” that led to the Paris Agreement, and we learned how she was able to do this—to get 195 different countries, against all odds, to make shared, good-faith resolutions toward addressing climate change. Figueres initially didn’t believe it was possible to get that many countries to agree, but she realized that successfully hosting the Paris Convention meant she herself would have to change. She had to genuinely believe it was possible to get the countries to commit to climate action. That was how she was able to then focus on getting the participating countries to believe in the possibility of addressing climate change as well. Where earlier international climate negotiations had failed, Figueres’s efforts brought nations together to agree on financing, new technologies, and other tools to keep global temperature rise below 2 or, even better, 1.5 °C.

In the case of the tech industry, we have a head start in that we don’t need to convince hundreds of countries or millions of people. Fewer than 10 people run the 21st century’s most powerful digital infrastructure—the so-called FAANG companies, comprising Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Alphabet (formerly Google). If those individuals got together and agreed that maximizing shareholder profit was no longer the common aim, the digital infrastructure could be different. If Christiana Figueres could bring about consensus between 195 nations, we could consider the possibility of doing it with 10 tech CEOs.

A new economics of humane technology

Several economic principles need to shift in order for technology to align with humanity and the planet. One of these is the growth paradigm. You simply can’t carry out a logic of infinite growth on a finite substrate. The drive for infinite economic growth is leading to a planetary ecological crisis. For tech companies, pursuing the infinite growth of extracted human attention leads to a similar crisis of global consciousness and social well-being. We need to shift to a post-growth attention economy that places mental health and well-being at the center of our desired outcomes.

Several economic principles need to shift in order for technology to align with humanity and the planet.

A small hint of this shift is taking place in countries including New Zealand and Scotland, where organizations such as the Wellbeing Economy Alliance are working to shift from an economy that promotes the gross domestic product (GDP) to one with these alternative priorities. Leaders are asking how well-being can inform public understanding of policies and political choices, guide decisions, and become a new foundation for economic thinking and practice.

Another shift toward a more humane technology requires a broader array of stakeholders who can create accountability for the long-term social impact of our actions. Right now, it is possible for large technology companies to make money by selling thinner and thinner “fake” slices of attention—selling fake clicks from fake sources of news to fake advertisers. These companies make money even if what the link or article leads to is egregiously wrong and propagates misinformation. This opportunism debases the information ecology by destroying our capacity to trust sources of knowledge or share beliefs about what is true, which in turn destroys our capacity for good decision making. The result is polarization, misinformation, and the breakdown of democratic citizenship. We need to create mechanisms that incentivize participants in the digital world to consider longer time frames and the broader impact their actions are having on society.

Human will plays an important role here. What if the leaders behind Apple’s App Store revenue distribution model—which acts as the central bank or Federal Reserve of the attention economy—simply chose to distribute revenue to app makers based not on whose users bought the most virtual goods or spent the most time using the app, but on who among the app makers best cooperated with other apps on the phone to help all members of society live more by their values?

Ultimately it comes down to setting the right rules. It is difficult for any one actor to optimize for well-being and alignment with society’s values when other players are still competing for finite resources and power. Without rules and guard rails, the most ruthless actors win. That’s why legislation and policies are necessary, along with the collective will of the people to enact them. The greater meta-crisis is that the democratic processes for creating guard rails operate at a much slower pace than the rate of technological development that is needed to make a difference. Technology will continue to advance faster than the harms can be well understood by 20th-century democratic institutions. The technology sector itself needs to come together, collaboratively, and find ways to operate so that shared societal goals are placed above hyper-competition and profit maximization.

Finally, we need to recognize the massive asymmetric power that technology companies have over individuals and society. They know us better than we know ourselves. Any asymmetric power structure must follow the fiduciary or “duty of care” model exemplified by a good teacher, therapist, doctor, or care worker—that is, it must work in the service of those with less power. It must not operate with a business model based on extraction. Upgraded business models for technology need to be generative: they need to treat us as the customer and not the product, and align with our most deeply held values and humanity.

Toward being human

E.O. Wilson has said, “The problem with humanity is that we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.” We need to embrace our paleolithic emotions in all their fixed weaknesses and vulnerabilities. We need to upgrade our institutions to incorporate more wisdom, prudence, and love. And we need to slow down the development of a godlike technology whose powers go beyond our capacity to steer the direction of the ship we are all on.

The realm of what is possible continues to expand, but it is arising contemporaneously with exponentially challenging global issues that require better information, leadership, and action. Rather than accepting a race to the bottom that downgrades and divides us, we can together create a technology landscape that enables a race to the top—one that supports our interconnection, civility, and deep brilliance. Change, I believe, is humanly possible.

Tristan Harris is cofounder and president of the Center for Humane Technology. This essay is an adapted excerpt from The New Possible: Visions of Our World beyond Crisis, to be published on January 26, 2021, by Cascade Books. 

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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President Joe Biden commits to replacing entire federal fleet with electric vehicles

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President Joe Biden said Monday the U.S. government would replace the entire federal fleet of cars, trucks and SUVs with electric vehicles manufactured in the United States, a commitment tied to a broader campaign promise to create 1 million new jobs in the American auto industry and supply chains.

The commitment, if it bears out, could give a boost to U.S. automakers, particularly those that have diverse portfolios that include passenger cars, commercial vans and light trucks.

Biden made the comments prior to signing the Made in America executive order, which places stricter rules on the federal government’s procurement practices. The government has existing “buy American” rules, which states that a certain amount of a product must be made in the U.S. for a purchase to qualify for a federal contract.

Biden said this order closes loopholes and aims to increase purchases of products made in the United States. The executive order increases that product threshold and the price preference for domestic goods — meaning the difference in price from which the government can buy a product for a non-U.S. supplier. It also updates the process for how the government decides if a product was sufficiently made in America.

In the midst of his speech, Biden said the buy American directive would extend to the federal government’s massive fleet of vehicles.

“The federal government also owns an enormous fleet of vehicles, which we’re going to replace with clean electric vehicles made right here in America, by American workers, creating millions of jobs — a million auto worker jobs.”

The opportunity is a large one. The U.S. government had more than 645,000 vehicles in its fleet in 2019, the most recent data available from the General Services Agency. Of those, about 224,000 are passenger vehicles and more than 412,000 are trucks.

“GSA is committed to exploring opportunities to leverage the purchasing and leasing power of the federal government to address the climate crisis, including greening the federal fleet,” a GSA spokesperson told TechCrunch in an emailed statement. “GSA currently manages over 224,000 passenger vehicles in its fleet to support the Federal Government’s mission. By leveraging clean energy vehicle technologies, GSA will support the President’s climate goals, while working with the American automotive manufacturing industry to ensure that these next generation vehicles are built in America by American workers.”

The directive won’t be easy to fulfill. Many of these federal vehicles are leased, which could slow the transition depending on the contract lengths. There are other obstacles, including charging infrastructure and supply. And while it doesn’t appear to be a requirement, Biden has publicly stated numerous times — including Monday — that he supports union automotive jobs.

Tesla is considered the dominant U.S. manufacturer of electric vehicles. However, the company’s lack of union workers and the higher cost of its vehicles — even the less expensive Model 3 — could be a barrier.

Ford and GM might not have a vast supply of electric vehicles at the moment, but they do have union shops and both automakers are investing heavily to expand their EV offerings.

GM launched a new business unit earlier this month to offer commercial customers an ecosystem of electric and connected products as part of the company’s $27 billion bid to become a leading electric automaker. The new business, called BrightDrop, will begin with two main products: an electric van called the EV600 with an estimate range of 250 miles and a pod-like electric pallet dubbed EP1.

GM has said it plans to bring 30 new electric vehicles to a global market through 2025. More than two-thirds of those launches will be available in North America and every one of GM’s brands, including Cadillac, GMC, Chevrolet and Buick, will be represented, according to the automaker.

Meanwhile, Ford revealed in November a configurable all-electric cargo van called the E-Transit as part of its $11.5 billion investment in electrification. Ford has largely focused its electrification efforts on the consumer market, notably the Mustang Mach-E. The E-Transit, which will be built at its Kansas City Assembly Plant in Claycomo, Missouri, is aimed at the commercial sector.

There are a growing number of newer EV entrants as well, including Rivian, Lordstown Motors and Fisker. Rivian is expected to begin producing and delivering its electric pickup truck in July, followed by its all-electric SUV. Rivian is also developing and assembling electric vans for Amazon.

Biden’s call to transform the fleet supports statements he made throughout his campaign. Biden pledged to “use all the levers of the federal government,” including purchasing power, R&D, tax, trade, and investment policies to position the U.S. to be the global leader in the manufacture of electric vehicles and their input materials and parts.

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Facebook News launches in the UK, the first international market for its curated news portal

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As the United Kingdom prepares to sharpen its focus on how it regulates big tech companies, Facebook is taking a big step up in the role it plays in presenting media to the U.K. public, and into how it works with the country’s media industry.

Today it is launching Facebook News in the U.K., Facebook’s first market outside of the U.S. for its dedicated, curated news portal — accessed, like the U.S. version, through a tab in the Android or iOS app menu.

The portal will launch with content from hundreds of local and national media organizations including Channel 4 News, Daily Mail Group, DC Thomson, Financial Times, Sky News and Telegraph Media Group. The Economist, The Guardian, The Independent, STV and hundreds of local news sites from Archant, Iliffe, JPI Media, Midlands News Association, and Reach, as well as “lifestyle” titles GQ, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Vogue and others were announced in an earlier list of partners last year.

Again, as with the U.S. version, users will be provided a list of curated top stories of the day; a list of personalized stories based on news sources you might already follow or interests you have (these might be from publications you don’t already follow); and dedicated news sections for sports, entertainment, health and science and technology. Users can indicate when they like stories, or when they want to hide them to train the algorithms better.

Facebook has confirmed to us that it will be working with a service called Upday to curate the stories that appear on News. “The product is a mix of curated, top stories and personalized links chosen by algorithm,” a spokesperson said. Upday appears to be a joint collaboration between German publisher Axel Springer and Samsung, which also runs a news service on its phones powered by it.

It is not clear what the financial terms of the deal is between Facebook and Upday, but reportedly, the licensing deals Facebook is cutting with publishers to place their content in News collectively run into the tens of millions of pounds, with the biggest publishers making millions a year from the the agreements. While those figures might pale to what Facebook makes in ad revenues globally — that reaches into the tens of billions of dollars quarterly — they represent significant sums for the beleaguered U.K. media industry.

People have long used newsfeeds on Facebook and other social sites to catch up with news while also browsing posts from friends, Groups and Pages that they follow. Facebook News aims to take that a step further, as a curated page for links and headlines from hundreds of publications in the country to provide users of its mobile apps a one-stop place to read the stories of the moment.

Social media continues to be a major source of news for consumers, but as we’ve seen, a very skewed and flawed source at that.

Within that context, Facebook says that its intention with Facebook News is to provide a more balanced and dedicated mix of news to people beyond what they might encounter in their newsfeeds, while also tailoring it to users’ interests.

It also helps that Facebook News provides yet another way for Facebook — which has made efforts in video, entertainment content, mentoring and job-hunting, Nextdoor-style community listings, peer-to-peer selling, and more — to continue diversifying away from the Newsfeed for those who have grown bored with that: now, people can come to the Facebook app to browse news, too.

Still, this international expansion has been a long time coming: Facebook News first launched as a test in the US more than a year ago, in October 2019, before rolling out to all users last June.

No word from Facebook on how many users or engagement the U.S. version of Facebook News has picked up, except that “it has grown steadily,” according to a spokesperson.

It’s not clear why there’s been such a long gap between its first efforts in the U.S. and the U.K. launch today, but Facebook has had more going on in addition to securing those licensing deals to roll out in this market.

Launching a new news portal, with the message that it’s designed to “help” publishers, takes on a new dimension when you consider that Facebook has also been in the crosshairs of regulators in Europe, who have been on a long-term mission to scrutinize the reach of big tech companies. In the UK, that is soon taking the form of a new “pro-competition” Digital Market Unit that will re-examine the role companies like Facebook and Google play in advertising, media and more. 

Whether those regulatory moves will impact how a service like Facebook News works, or what revenue cuts and usage data are shared with news partners, remains to be seen.

In the meantime, it’s full speed ahead for more scaling: Facebook confirmed plans last year that its long-term aim is for a bigger international expansion for Facebook News, with the longer list of countries including Brazil, France, Germany, and India. In a blog post today, Facebook’s director of news partnerships in Europe, Jesper Doub, confirmed France and Germany were next in line for Facebook News, although no launch dates were specified.

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Daily Crunch: Twitter unveils Birdwatch

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Twitter pilots a new tool to fight disinformation, Apple brings celebrity-guided walks to the Apple Watch and Clubhouses raises funding. This is your Daily Crunch for January 25, 2021.

The big story: Twitter unveils Birdwatch

Twitter launched a new product today that it says will offer “a community-based approach to misinformation.”

With Birdwatch, users will be able to flag tweets that they find misleading, write notes to add context to those tweets and rate the notes written by others. This is supposed to be a complement to the existing system where Twitter removes or labels particularly problematic tweets, rather than a replacement.

What remains to be seen: How Twitter will handle it when two or more people get locked into a battle and post a flurry of conflicting notes about whether a tweet is misleading or not.

The tech giants

Walking with Dolly — Apple discusses how and why it brought Time to Walk to the Watch.

Google pledges grants and facilities for COVID-19 vaccine programs — The tech giant is one of several large corporations that have pledged support to local government agencies and medical providers to help increase vaccinations.

Facebook will give academic researchers access to 2020 election ad targeting data — Starting next month, Facebook will open up academic access to a data set of 1.3 million political and social issue ads.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Clubhouse announces plans for creator payments and raises new funding led by Andreessen Horowitz — While we try to track down the actual value of this round, Clubhouse has confirmed it will be introducing products to help creators on the platform get paid.

Taboola is going public via SPAC — The transaction is expected to close in the second quarter, and the combined company will trade on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol TBLA.

Wolt closes $530M round to continue expanding beyond restaurant delivery — The Helsinki-based online ordering and delivery company initially focused on restaurants but has since expanded to other verticals.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Qualtrics raises IPO pricing ahead of debut — After being acquired by SAP, Qualtrics announced it would spin out as its own public company.

Fintechs could see $100 billion of liquidity in 2021 — The Matrix Fintech Index weighs public markets, liquidity and a new e-commerce trend.

Unpacking Chamath Palihapitiya’s SPAC deals for Latch and Sunlight Financial — There’s no escaping SPACs, at least for a little while.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Moderna says it’s making variant-specific COVID-19 vaccines, but its existing vaccine should still work — Moderna has detailed some of the steps it’s taking to ensure that its vaccine remains effective in the face of emerging strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that leads to COVID-19.

Original Content podcast: ‘Bridgerton’ is an addictive reimagining of Jane Austen-style romance — Did I mention that the cast is insanely good-looking?

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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